How to Become a Freelance Journalist

Written by Newspaper Humor Columnist & Social Media Expert

How to Become a Freelance Journalist

Being a freelance journalist — a freelance writer of any kind, actually — is pretty cool. You get to be your own boss, you can choose the stories you want to write, and share your ideas and interests with the world.

Becoming a freelance journalist gives you the chance to combine the intellectual rigor of research and delving into the things that excite you. You're not held back by the typical constraints of a traditional newsroom, you have autonomy and flexibility, and you can build your schedule and work around your own life and passions.

These are the skills and steps you need to become a freelance journalist. Most of my references and ideas will be based on my life in the United States, but the principles will be the same no matter where you are in the world.

1. Sharpen Your Wordsmithing Skills

I assume you already know how to write, so that's not an issue. But that doesn't mean you can't get better. Get the professional version of Grammarly and install it into your computer browser and on your laptop. Let it check everything you write and learn about the grammar, punctuation, and spelling issues that give you constant issues.

Read other journalists to get a feeling for what good writing looks like. Reading good writing leads to good writing.

Just be selective about what you choose. You can't get better by reading mediocre prose, which I hate to say, means don't read most blogs. (Except this one.)

Read some of the giants in journalism, even if it's stories that are 50 years old. Read some of the notable fiction writers who got their start in the news world: Ernest Hemingway, Ring Lardner, Anna Quindlen, Edna Buchanan, and Rebecca West. Their journalistic training carried them over into the realm of fiction.

Another source of great writing is sportswriters. They're always some of the best writers in any newsroom, and you can read old sports writers from 75 or more years ago (Ring Lardner). Honestly, no matter where you live in the world, the sportswriters are going to be some of the best writers in your community.

Learn to research like a pro. Freelance journalists are detectives when it comes to finding information. Learn how to do online research, how to find credible sources, and how to compile and cite that research when you need it.

Learn the difference between reliable and biased sources. Learn how to recognize credible and non-credible websites. And learn how to find multiple sources of information to confirm many of the same facts.

One thing every journalism outlet is afraid of is publishing erroneous information, so you need to do everything you can to protect yourself. If you're ever unsure of a fact, you should have at least two or even three different reliable sources that all confirm what you're going to say.

Learn how to interview people. You're going to get a lot of opportunities to interview people as a freelance journalist. After all, they're going to be your primary sources for the information you write about.

If you're a science journalist, you can't just rely on writing stories from press releases or online articles. You need to speak to the principal researchers and ask questions of the people who did the study you're covering.

If you're a sports reporter, you have to interview the winning coach and the star of the game.

And if you're covering local politics, you need to speak to the politicians on a regular basis.



with the discount code


Save Now

2. Choose Your Niche

Choose Your Niche

Decide on the topics you want to specialize in. This could be anything from technology to lifestyle or finance. Having a niche will help you target specific publications and audiences.

3. Build Your Portfolio

Every writer needs to have clips of past stories they've written. It's a sample of your stories that you can share with editors to prove that you know what you're doing and what you're talking about. Every writer has them, although to be honest, when you've been doing it for a long time and have built up a reputation, the portfolio isn't so important. Your reputation will speak for itself.

Start a blog. If you don't have stories, you probably won't get an editor to take a chance on you, so how are you going to get any stories? Start a blog about your chosen beat — sports, politics, science, etc. — and start writing your own stories.

This is what's called writing "on spec," or on a speculative basis. You're doing it in the hopes that something will come of it, but there's no promise of payment or profit.

Once you get started with your blog, you may find that this becomes a source of income in itself as you can start making income from the blog. It will also help you cement your reputation as a writer because you can share your stories with the editors and publishers already covering that beat.

Start local. Depending on where you live, you may have local newspapers or online publications that need writers, although they can't pay very much. Contact the local editors or publishers and ask them if they have any small stories they would like you to work on.

This could be a meeting of the local school board or zoning board. Or it could be one of the local high school games — in the U.S., these are called "preps," which means preparatory — because many local newspapers can't cover every game. However, prep sports are what drive a lot of print and online newspapers, so this is a consistent and ongoing beat.

Or you could be what is called a "stringer." That's a freelance journalist who writes stories for a news outlet on an ongoing basis but is only paid per story, not on a salary. It's the ideal situation for a freelance journalist because if you're covering a particular beat for a large organization — it can be ongoing work.

For example, if you covered a university or semi-pro sports team, you could be a stringer for a national news outlet. In a lot of cases, you don't get a primary byline, but you do get contributor credit for the story.

Create your own. If you don't have a publication to write for, create your own. Start a blog or online media outlet about the topic you're passionate about. Not only does this become part of your portfolio, but it gives you a place to write about your passion and get involved in the industry.

If you were going to be an entrepreneur and start your own business, this would be the obvious route to take. Only then you're writing what is considered "thought leadership." You write a blog with numerous articles about your particular industry, interview other notable people in it, and become known as an expert in that industry.

That's what it means to cover a particular beat, especially if you have your own blog. You become the thought leader, you become the expert, and you become the reliable source for information on this particular topic.

Once you build your reputation there, you can start pitching articles about that topic to industry-related journals. And remember, industry publications often pay more than mainstream publications.

4. Become a Pitching Machine.

Of course, just because you declare yourself to be a freelance journalist doesn't mean that people are going to beat a path to your door to have you write for your publication. And, writing to editors asking if they need a freelance journalist isn't going to help you either.

Pitch your ideas. Your freelance journalist career is like a baseball game. You're always pitching, pitching, pitching to finally get a hit. (Weird metaphor, I know.) You need to suggest story after story after story to see if you can get an editor who's interested.

Come up with a story idea matches fits your interests and writing styles to the publication's. That is, don't pitch a sports article to a fashion magazine or a humorous article to a financial magazine.

Research the publication first. Read stories in the publication and get very familiar with the kinds of stories they run. Be sure to mention the stories in your proposal that you think would make them be interested in your story.

"I recently read your story on using artificial intelligence to design new women's shoe styles. I thought your readers might want to know about how fashion designers are using 3D printing to create haute couture fashion."

Craft an awesome pitch. Your pitch is your first impression. Keep it brief and concise, and highlight why your story idea will be valuable to your readers. Talk about how you are the best person to write this story.

"I will be attending the 3D-Fashion conference in Paris in June and attending several of the panel discussions, as well as meeting up-and-coming designers. I can write a story about 3D printing in the fashion world."

Be persistent. Rejection is going to happen. The only people who get rejected more are telephone salespeople, so this is going to be a part of the freelancing game. Get used to hearing know and just remind yourself that it's not personal, it's business. It's not a rejection of you as a person but of your particular idea at that time.*

  • Warning: You will not feel that way when those rejections come in. No one ever does. This is just something all writers tell each other so we don't collapse into tears at our desks. But it's completely true.*

All a rejection means is that your idea is not one that this particular editor wanted at this particular time. So re-pitch it to someone else. There's bound to be someone who wants an article on that particular topic. And if they don't, then write about it on your own blog and put it in your portfolio.

But it also means you need to pitch more ideas to that editor. Eventually, they'll buy one, you'll do a good job, and they'll be more likely to accept your next idea. Or the one after that. You may even reach the point where they tell you, "I like it, but can you do it this way instead?" They'll work with you to tweak your idea into something they do want.

5. Practice Your Freelancing Fundamentals.

There are some basic fundamentals you need to know as a freelance writer, let alone a freelance journalist. Whether you stick with journalism, go into copywriting, or even go on to become a ghostwriter, you'll want to practice these fundamentals throughout your career.

Set your rates. Find out what freelance journalists in your field typically charge, and don't undervalue your work. A good rule of thumb is to divide your annual salary needs by 1,000, and that's your hourly rate.

We work roughly 2,000 hours per year, but writers tend not to work for 2,000. We work half that amount and spend the other amount dealing with administrative problems, so 1,000 hours. But if that rate is less than $60 USD per hour, raise your rate. There is no reason that you should be making less than that amount.

However, sometimes the publications will set the rates, and you have to follow them. But if they pay less than what you're worth, go somewhere else.

Be business savvy. If you're a freelancer, you're an entrepreneur, so you need to learn to think like one. You're more than just a writer, you own a business, and that's you.

Learn how to invoice your clients, and track your income and expenses. Learn how to manage your time and projects. Learn how to promote yourself. There are plenty of great writers that no one has ever heard of and plenty of mediocre writers who are famous.

Network, network, network! Connect with other freelance journalists, editors, and potential clients. Network with PR and marketing professionals. Network with the leaders of your industry's professional organizations.

These are the people who will point you in the direction of new stories, hire you for new articles, and be your sources for interviews and research. You might be able to live in a bubble as a novelist, but you're a journalist/entrepreneur. That means getting out and meeting people

Stay on top of trends. The media landscape, as well as your chosen beat, is always changing and evolving. Keep up-to-date with what's happening even as you adapt your skills, network, and knowledge.

Use tools like Google Alerts to receive daily emails about your industry experts, important topics, and your publications. Set up an alert for your own name — put your pen name in quotes — so you can see when your articles come out and if they're being used anywhere else.

Deliver high-quality work. Meeting deadlines and exceeding expectations will keep your editors coming back for more of your work.

It also does help when you check in with your editors from time to time. Don't pester them with "Just checking in to say 'hi!'" messages. They're too busy. But this is where your frequent pitching of ideas will become important.

As you deliver high-quality work with a lot of great ideas, they're going to come to see you as a trusted resource. They'll be more likely to say yes, and you're more likely to build up a regular roster of clients who can keep you working.



with the discount code


Use Code Now

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the way to become a successful freelance journalist is through patience and persistence.

Look, writing is a grind. It's hard work, no matter what others may tell you. It takes a lot of effort to become a good writer. It takes a lot of effort to find stories, to get information, to interview subjects. And it takes a lot of work to find editors who will buy your work.

But if you can follow these steps and guidelines, you'll be on your way to becoming a freelance journalist with a long and productive career. Good luck!

Jivo Live Chat